Monday, March 24, 2008

John Howard Yoder In Colombia

My ears perked up during a meeting at JustaPaz in Colombia when I heard Janna Hunter-Bowman use an obscure Yoderian term to describe her work. Janna collects stories from human rights victims and was an energetic (and very pregnant) ball of energy when she talked to us. I also stumbled across her blog while searching for information about Mencoldes (a Mennonite economic development aid agency in Colombia), and was happy to read that the baby is now born and healthy and happy.

Anyway, she was talking about human rights, and mentioned that in their work, they don’t believe in military standards of conduct, because they don’t believe in violence as a solution to problems. Therefore there are no standards for violent conduct that make sense for them. However, they do use John Howard Yoder’s “middle axioms” to hold people accountable to their own standards.

John Howard Yoder is probably the most influential Mennonite theologian of the 20th century. He wrote The Politics of Jesus, a seminal book for theologians that argued how the ethics of Jesus can and should be applied in the real world, rather than as simply unattainable ethic standards that we should ignore.

However, the “middle axioms” term is one Yoder used in a little treatise called Christian Witness to the State, and I believe not used again after that. It is a mapping between religious values and secular values – basically, you find secular values that map onto religious values, and use them when speaking to a secular audience, because it is important to meet people where they are. So, you may not agree with a particular standard that is important to others, but you can at least hold them accountable to their own standards.

Yoder used this strategy very effectively with Catholics and Just War theory. As a pacifist, he didn’t believe in Just War, but he spent a lot of time on it, and challenged Catholics when they misapplied it to contemporary wars. In doing so, he caused them to take Just War Theory more seriously (in theological circles, anyway).

Perhaps this is only interesting to the hundred or so people in the world who have taken the John Howard Yoder’s Theology class at AMBS. But I was tickled to hear the term “middle axiom” in a real-life setting, and with such critical work.


brownie said...

I'm curious to hear how Catholics "misapplied" just war theory in the 20th century. Maybe I'm misunderstanding you completely and it's just me, but I don't remember the Vatican waging war on anyone.

Dan S said...

The Vatican doesn't wage war, but instead blesses it via Just War Theory, giving moral cover to the state for wars it wages. It's been that way ever since Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire, and St. Augustine developed the first version of Just War Theory back in the 5th Century.

But, I'm obviously getting my info from Mennonite sources (that Yoder moved many Catholic theologians to take JWT more seriously). Lots of Christians invoke JWT to justify wars that obviously do not quality (Iraq, Vietnam, etc). Since JWT came out of the Catholic tradition, Catholics are seen as the keepers and defenders of Just War Theory. That is why I references Catholic theologians specifically.

brown said...

Like beauty, whether or not a war qualifies as a "just war" depends soley and completely on the eye of the beholder. Or, perhaps more accurately, the side one finds oneself on, politically or otherwise.

I'm sure the Germans and Japanese weren't nearly as inclined to call the outcome of WWII as "just," while the victors...well...I've heard yes, even devout Mennonites, say it was just.